DCSIMG

British & Irish Lions: Gatland sees bright future

Tour captan Sam Warburton poses with the Tom Richards Cup at the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Getty

Tour captan Sam Warburton poses with the Tom Richards Cup at the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Getty

  • by ANDREW BALDOCK IN SYDNEY
 

Warren Gatland believes the British and Irish Lions could be equipped with “an incredibly strong squad” for the formidable challenge of tackling New ­Zealand in four years’ time.

It is 42 years since the Lions won a Test series in All Blacks country, but they might easily travel with renewed optimism when 2017 comes around.

Not only did the Lions ­triumph at Australia’s expense, clinching a 2-1 series success at the weekend, they achieved it with a crop of exciting young players – stars such as Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Alex Corbisiero, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. And when the planning begins for New Zealand, it will start from a solid base of world-class talent.

Asked if he thought the Lions could prevail in 2017, head coach Gatland said: “Yes, I think if we get things right in terms of the preparation and stuff. If you look at how young this squad is, a lot of them could be around in four years’ time.

“If they are playing well enough and you have got four more years’ experience on some young heads, some young shoulders and they are in their late 20s, that potentially makes the Lions squad in four years’ time incredibly strong.

“That is something to be ­excited about. The amount of ­interest it has created, I am sure the sponsors are pretty happy and the people who are ­involved in negotiating things for the future of the Lions.

“You’ve always got to believe that when you go somewhere you go there to win. I know we talk about 2005 [New Zealand] being disappointing, and for us the motivation in 2009 [South Africa] was about respect and getting respect back for that jersey.

“The whole focus on this tour was about delivering the Test series win.”

Gatland came in for fierce criticism from all quarters for his final Test selection, one that contained ten Welshmen, but no Brian O’Driscoll, who was left out of the 23.

But he revealed an experience he gained while coaching ­Ireland several years ago gave him an unshakeable belief in how he should approach selection. “If we had won the series, fantastic. If we had lost, there would only be fingers pointed at myself,” he added.

“We lost an away game to Scotland which cost Ireland a Grand Slam. Tactically, I changed the way we played, influenced by some selections.

“I promised myself I would never do that again, that I would never back down from what I felt would be the right decision.

“On 50-50 calls, sometimes you can be swayed by other coaches, but when you really ­believe deep down it’s the right decision you have got to back yourself 100 per cent. I would rather make what I thought was the right decision, rather than have any regrets afterwards.” Gatland, meanwhile, underlined his existing commitment to Wales, which will see him take them through to World Cup 2015 in England. At the last tournament, Wales were beaten semi-finalists.

“I am committed to Wales for the World Cup,” he said.

“Now that the Lions has finished, I am really excited about potentially what Wales could achieve with the group of players that we’ve got, with the talent that we’ve got.

“I think we’ve got a chance of doing well in terms of the Six Nations and World Cups. After that, after 2015 I will think about my future.

“I may just hang up the boots and go to the beach, sit down with a glass of red wine and a cigar.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Lions moving forward to New Zealand in four years’ time and South Africa [2021] will be aiming to improve pre-tour ­fixture scheduling and subsequent preparation difficulties.

This time around, the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect PRO 12 finals took place only 48 hours before the Lions left London, which meant players involved in those games took no part in pre-tour training.

Lions tour manager Andy Irvine said: “One of the great things on this tour was that we had tremendous continuity from 2009 to 2013 in terms of the coaches, the medics, the physios. That makes a massive difference.

“The one thing I would say – and I passionately believe in this – is that the scheduling is all wrong. We, as a [Lions] board, did our damnedest to give ­Warren more time. It is absolutely bonkers that you have a Rabo final and an Aviva final 48 hours ­before you fly out. Believe me, we tried as hard as we could to change that.

“I am not sure if we can change it in four years’ time, but thereafter, once the SANZAR agreement [the touring deal between the Lions and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa] comes up for negotiation, make no mistake, our boys will get more time with the players.

“They have to, because it is unfair on the coaches and the players. There is a legally binding contract in place. Unless both parties agree to changing that contract, you can’t break it.

“We are powerless to break it, unless we have the agreement of the New Zealand Rugby Union, or alternatively, the clubs back home. You try to persuade the Premiership clubs to move their final, or try to persuade ERC [European Rugby Cup] to move their final. If you can do it, you are a better man than me.

“We can’t force them to do it. We’ve offered them money and tried to impress upon them how important Lions tours are.

“What we did this year was give the lads an extra two weeks’ training, and only the ones involved in the two finals didn’t attend training. That was 13 or 14 of them, but Gats would tell you that the preparation this time was better than it was in 2009.”

 

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